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Introduction To The Scripture For Good Friday - Year A
Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1 - 19:42
alt - Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Good Friday - Year A


ISAIAH 52:13 - 53:12          This traditional reading from the unknown
prophet of Israel's Babylonian exile quickly became the model for early
Christian interpretation of Jesus? Passion.  As the fourth and last of the
Servant Songs in the Hebrew scriptures, it describes vicarious suffering on
behalf of others which receives it reward in divine vindication.  This was
seen as Israel's role in bringing God's plan and purpose to the world.


PSALM 22                      This psalm also became a model for the
crucifixion story in Christian tradition.  Many of the details of that
narrative were taken directly from this psalm e.g. vss. 1, 7 and 18.


HEBREWS 10:16-25              This passage contains references to the end
of traditional Jewish practices of sacrificial worship and the Christian
interpretation of the death of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of God's
revelation and covenant with Israel.


HEBREWS 4:14-16; 5:7-9        (Alternate) This passage compares the
suffering and death of Jesus to Jewish religious practices related to Yom
Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  It proclaims that Jesus? death and
resurrection accomplished once and for all the necessary atonement for our
sin.


JOHN 18:1 - 19:42             Modern media accounts of the Passion reflect
the tendency to create a single narrative about the crucifixion as if such
a compendium was possible.  These usually reflect a particular theological 
position about the meaning of Christ's death on the cross.  From the
Gospels themselves, it is not possible to create a harmonized version that
is convincingly cohesive.  John's version of the story provides details not
found in the other Gospels.  We must therefore accept the scholarly view
that the several gospel authors had access to differing oral traditions of
what may actually have happened.  All of the gospels gives us a very moving
story from different points of view.


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.

ISAIAH 52:13-53:12   This traditional reading from the unknown prophet of
Israel's Babylonian exile quickly became the model for early Christian
interpretation of Jesus? crucifixion.  It has also shaped that part of
Christian theology called Christology about the person and work of Christ. 
As the fourth and last of the Servant Songs in the Hebrew scriptures, it
describes vicarious suffering on behalf of others which receives it reward
in divine vindication.  This was seen as Israel's role in bringing God's
plan and purpose to the world.  However, it was not until the beginning of
the Christian era that Jews began to think of the Messiah as suffering, and
then only in an extensively qualified manner.  For instance, in the Targum
of Isaiah, the sufferings fall on both Jews and Gentiles.  Whereas
Christian thought pressed an individual interpretation, Jewish thought
maintained a collective theory that Israel itself was the Servant who
suffered.

At the beginning of this passage at 52:13, Yahweh speaks of the future
exaltation of the Servant despite the horrible suffering he was the endure. 
Early Christians desperately seeking to understand the cross and
resurrection of Jesus quickly seized on the subsequent vss. 14-15.  The
Roman system of capital punishment, like those of every culture, had one
intent: to instill fear in the general populace.  The obvious cruelty of
public crucifixion effectively subdued unstable societies throughout the
empire.

Ch.  53:1-3 turns the attention to the tragedy of the situation.  The ?we?
of vs.  1 cannot be identified but presumably are the sensitive observers
in the general public to whom the passage was addressed.  The unbelievably
has happened.  This ordinary person, the Servant, disfigured and despised,
supposed to have been stricken by Yahweh, has suffered for their sins, not
his own (vss. 4-6).  

Attention shifts once more in vss. 7-9 to the manner in which the Servant
bore the afflictions laid on him.  As silently as a sheep led to slaughter,
he endured his lot though it was a perversion of justice.  He made no
protest nor uttered any deceitful blame against anyone else.  

Again in vs.  10, attention shifts to the Servant's vindication.  His
self-sacrifice benefits  many.  Behind all that has happened in this tragic
situation stands the purpose of Yahweh.  Divine justice and mercy come
together as the Servant's offspring bring his legacy to light.  Sin must be
punished and righteousness rewarded.  

The essence of substitutionary sacrifice lies behind these verses.  Sin
must be atoned for, but the divine-human relationship sustained.  The
Servant's sacrifice effectively does this by fulfilling Yahweh's purpose. 
This motif can also be found in the sufferings of Israel's great prophets
like Jeremiah and Hosea.  No amount of scholarly discourse can set aside
the supreme significance of this passage for Christian faith in the life,
death and resurrection of Jesus.  Is there also meaning to be found here in
the tragic deaths of public servants such as police officers who are killed
in the performance of their duties?


PSALM 22   This psalm also became a model for the crucifixion story in
Christian tradition.  Many of the details of that narrative were taken
directly from this psalm e.g. vss. 1, 7 and 18.  The latter vs. 18 appears
in all four gospels: Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; and John
19:23-24.  If proof is needed, this surely clarifies how the earliest
tradition sought meaning for the crucifixion in the Hebrew scriptures.  

Scholars have detected a sharp difference in tone after vs. 21 which take
the form a very personal lament.  The remaining vss. 22-31 becomes a hymn
of thanksgiving for deliverance.  As it now stands, the whole psalm can be
approached by worshippers as an appropriate way to view the cross on Good
Friday.  Inevitably we are saddened by the tragic death of such a person as
Jesus of Nazareth.  We can also rejoice and gratefully celebrate that he
died for us.

Did Jesus actually feel forsaken despite his experience of intense praying
and being strengthened in Gethsemane? Humanly speaking, how else could he
accomplish his mission of closing the gates of death for all creation
except by being totally excluded himself from the presence of God in death?
Did he sacrifice his divine nature at this point? 

The final words of vss. 19-21 offer a way out of such a terrifying dilemma. 
The whole psalm is in essence a soulful prayer.  Particularly intense pleas
for help and trust in God lift the psalm from the tragic despair of the
foregoing verses to the realm where only thanksgiving and global witness
seem appropriate responses to the final revelation of God's will to save to
the uttermost.


HEBREWS 10:16-25   This passage contains references to the end of
traditional Jewish practices of sacrificial worship and the Christian
interpretation of the death of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of God's
revelation and covenant with Israel.

It is difficult to know why the framers of the RCL chose to begin this
reading in the middle of the sentence that introduces the quotation from
Jeremiah 31:31-34.  The author's point, nonetheless, is to reinforce the
conviction that while forgiveness removes the necessity for further
sacrifices, yet the need remains to respond to Christ's sacrifice with
sound ethical behaviour.  Indeed, this selective quotation from the prophet
serves as an introduction to the moral exhortations which continue from
this point to the end the letter/sermon.

Vss. 19-20 refers directly to the functions of the high priest of the
temple on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).  On that greatest of Jewish
feasts, and only on this one occasion each year, the high priest would
enter the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the blood of the sacrificial lamb on
the ark of the covenant.  This liturgical action had the effect of
cleansing the whole of Israel from sin and renewing their covenant
relationship with God.  This author regarded the self-sacrifice of Jesus
symbolized in our baptism (vs. 22) as replacing once and for all the need
for this annual ritual of atonement.

Our faith in the efficacy of Jesus? sacrifice is continually confirmed and
invoked in worship.  Our intent in so doing should result in love and good
deeds (vs. 23-24).  But not all of the faithful for whom this is true
gather for worship awaiting the approaching Day of the Lord when Jesus will
return.  Some are habitually absent and need further encouragement.  Would
this be one of the reasons why some preachers are said to make a habit of
thundering from the pulpit at those designated as Easter Christians?


HEBREWS 4:14-16, 5:7-9   (Alternate) This passage also compares the
suffering and death of Jesus to the ritual performed by the Jewish high
priest on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  It proclaims that Jesus? death
and resurrection accomplished once and for all as the final, necessary
atonement for our sin.  The emphasis is not placed on the ritual but on the
sinless nature of the one performing it.  

Jesus alone is qualified to atone for our sin because he alone is able to
sympathize with us who constantly face temptations which prevent us, but
did not prevent him from having a perfect faith relationship with God.  

The second part of this reading refers directly to Jesus? experience in
Gethsemane where he prayed to be relieved of his impending doom.  This
author perceived that experience correctly as one more temptation, although
not the last he faced, all of which caused him intense suffering.  His
final temptation was to respond to the scurrilous cries of the crowd
watching his crucifixion that he come down from the cross to save himself. 
Through his faithful obedience strengthened by his prayers in Gethsemane
and on the cross, he became the source of salvation for all who follow and
obey his commandment to love as he loved us.
He suffered so intensely for the simple reason that he did not deserve to
die a criminal's death and felt totally abandoned by God.

The final words of this reading ? ?a high priest according to the order of
Melchizedek? - may bring a good deal of puzzlement to the minds of those
who hear them.  Melchizedek was the priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem) who
provided a cultic feast for Abraham (Gen.  14:18-20) and then blessed him. 
This gave him greater status than either Abraham, his brother Aaron,
recognized as the first high priest of Israel, and Levi, his descendant,
all of whom were mortals.  Mentioning him here served to reinforce in the
minds of the audience the superiority of Jesus in his salvatory function. 
In Heb.  7:1-3 we read that Abraham subjected himself to Melchizedek alone
and that this Canaanite priest-king whose name means ?king of righteousness
and peace? has no parents or genealogy, ?but resembling the Son of God
remains a priest forever.? In short, Jesus sacrifice on the cross makes him 
superior to all others from whom we may derive hope of salvation.


JOHN 18:1 - 19:42   Modern media accounts of the Passion reflect the tendency
to create a single narrative about the crucifixion as if such a compendium
was possible.  These modern renditions of the story usually reflect a
particular theological position about the meaning of Christ's death on the
cross.  One of the most recent and variant narratives is Gibson's *The
Passion of the Christ.*

It is not possible to create from the Gospels themselves a harmonized
version that is convincingly cohesive.  John's version of the story
provides details and a theological purview not found in the other Gospels. 
We must therefore accept the scholarly view that the several gospel authors
had access to differing oral traditions of what may actually have happened. 
All of the gospels give us a very moving story from different points of
view.

John's perspective has some notable characteristics.  True to the theme of
his whole gospel narrative, he presents a Christological concern.  As the
Jesuit scholar J.R. Donahue wrote in his article in *The Interpreter's
Dictionary of the Bible* (vol. 5, 645) John also has an apologetic
perspective which sees the Jews more intensively as the agents of Jesus
death.  Hence, he has been regarded through the centuries, and particularly
in the 20th century, as anti-Semitic.  John also presents his version of
the Passion story with a dramatic style most apparent in the trial before
Pilate (30 vss. in all, 18:28 - 19:16).  On the other hand, Jesus'
sufferings through scourging and mocking have been softened to some extent,
being detailed in only two verses (19:2-3).  This has the effect of making
the Passion less degrading but heightens its significance as the hour of
his glorification and the return of the Word made flesh to the Father who
is Spirit as the prelude to the sending of the Paraclete.

Throughout John's narrative, Jesus knows what is to happen to him and he
accepts it willingly.  Instead of giving cryptic responses or silence to
his interrogators, he interrogates them.  Even Pilate is reduced to a
powerless official representative of the powers of this world over which
Jesus triumphs.  As described in words attributed to him in his last
discourse at the Last Supper and prayer, Jesus? behaviour under such stress
models the sacrificial love of the one who lays down his life for his
friends.

All of the above makes John's narrative more of a reflective interpretation
than a report of what may have happened.  Nonetheless, when we present it
liturgically and homiletically in Good Friday worship and in Lenten Bible
study, we treat it a history rather than theology.  Perhaps we neglect the
point that for Jewish and Gentile audiences, Jewish authors - and Jesus
himself - did theology by telling stories.  

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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